The waitress set a stone bowl filled with bubbling soup in front of me and then handed over a smaller, empty bowl with a spoon. "If it's too hot, you can put some in the other bowl," she explained.
I followed her instructions. As I spooned a few morsels and some flame-orange broth into the small bowl, I immediately noticed two completely unfamiliar ingredients. One was grayish and convoluted, like a small brain, and the other was pale, grape-sized and seemingly segmented, like a tiny suit of armor. I had my guesses about what I was eating along with the tender pieces of stewed fish, strands of bright greens and thin slices of turnip that bobbed in the broth, but it was not until later, when I had time to study dozens of recipes and Korean food blogs, that I was able to confirm the identity of these two mysterious proteins (they certainly weren't vegetables).
The little brain turned out to be iri, or milt, the semen sac of Alaskan pollock. The other bite was mideodeok, a small sea creature known as a "stalked sea squirt" in English. While I was a little surprised by their identities, I knew that milt, at least, is not an uncommon ingredient in Korean cuisine, and I've even encountered it on the menus of some of the most renowned culinary destinations in America (at least those where the dedication to whole-animal utilization is more than just lip service). The stalked sea squirt, though, was a revelation.
Although she hadn't identified those particular ingredients, the waitress at Manna Korean Food, where I dove into that bowl of pollock soup, or dongtae jjigae, had been happy to help with my explorations. And I needed her aid, because the menu is written only in Korean.
The little eatery is located on the second floor of the Ga Dong building at 11000 East Yale Avenue in Aurora. The building houses many other Korean businesses and two churches, so Manna's customers often include solo business types on their lunch breaks; groups of women who might also be taking advantage of the accounting services, spas and hair salons at the address; and young mothers with toddlers in tow. On one visit, every seat was taken, so I quickly finished my meal and paid my tab so that a group of construction workers could take my table.
Manna specializes in soups and stews served in heated stone bowls, so your order might arrive at a slow simmer or a rolling boil. I used Google Translate to help identify a few items (which only helps if you're prepared to cross-reference transliterations and misleading translations), and then asked lots of questions to make sure I was on the right track. I landed on the dongtae jjigae after a misfire; I was attempting to order a plate of braised monkfish with bean sprouts, but I was warned that it was served family-style and priced at $37, so I asked for something with seafood suitable for one person.
The resulting soup was moderately spicy from the addition of gochujang and carried the mild, appetizing aroma of pollock, a meaty fish that was cut into bite-sized cubes (with some bones attached, so I had to eat cautiously). Several pieces of iri shared space in the broth, adding a soft texture similar to steamed mussels but without the oceany flavor. The mideodeok was less pleasant, with a tough skin and a bitter interior. Still, what was overpowering as a single bite added nicely to the complex flavor of the broth. If you plan on trying mideodeok yourself, know that they tend to squirt when you bite down on them, which can result in a scalded tongue.
On a separate visit, I found exactly what I was looking for in the samgyetang. This is also a soup, but it's on the opposite end of the spectrum from dongtae jjigae. Instead of a fiery bowl of intimidating seafood, there are only a few ingredients, primarily a whole young chicken stuffed with rice and slowly poached until the meat easily pulls away from the bone with chopsticks. Ginseng adds a little earthy flavor, and green onions and thin ribbons of omelet add some color. The broth is otherwise unseasoned, but an order comes with a small dish of salt mixed with sesame seeds and dried seaweed, so you can adjust your soup to your taste, and you can also dip bites of chicken into the salt. Samgyetang is the Korean equivalent of grandmother's chicken soup — mild, nourishing and comforting. I found out later that this is also a popular dish on the hottest days of the year, since the hot broth restores energy and balances body temperature after a long, sweaty day.
Seolleongtang, a beef soup, is another good option. An order comes with a dish of chile paste so that you can calibrate the broth to your preferred heat level. And all of the soups are accompanied by banchan, the little bowls of pickled and fermented vegetables that double as condiment and side dish.
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Manna's dining room only holds four or five tables, so it can feel a little crowded during a busy lunch rush, especially since you're sharing space with boxes of foodstuffs stacked on shelves along the walls. (The restaurant is simply too small for a storage room.) But the bustle of the women in the kitchen and the greetings between the customers and waitstaff, many of whom seem to know each other, add warmth and cheer to the bare-bones space. There's a whiteboard menu with a dozen or so dishes listed in Korean — dumplings, bulgogi and chicken stew being the most recognizable — with prices included so you can at least see which are large orders.
Manna does not have full hours listed, but weekday lunches are a good bet, or you can call 720-415-0382 to see if the restaurant's open. Getting there can be tricky: Look for the Ga Dong building in the parking lot behind Arash International Market at the corner of South Parker Road and East Yale Avenue.
Once you make it inside Manna, you'll enjoy a meal as close as you'll get to an authentic Korean restaurant experience while still in the Mile High City. And just as when you visit a new country for the first time, there's a little awkwardness as you try to decide whether to add your side of rice to your soup (as I observed some customers doing), which banchan complement your order, and even whether you're requesting something appropriate for the season and time of day. Maybe you won't get exactly what you had in mind, but then you'll probably learn something new — such as just what a stalked sea squirt tastes like when it pops in your mouth.